Early in You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Joe, takes a violent blow to the back of the head. Movie convention has programmed us to expect one single hit like this to knock a character out cold. You Were Never Really Here is no conventional movie. Joe stumbles for a second, then he turns and gives it right back to his assailant. Joe punches the man in the face and he goes down but is also not out. It’s a quick and brutal exchange that sets the tone for the next 90 minutes. Director Lynne Ramsay’s new film is a rescue/action movie like Taken, by way of the avant-garde experimentalism of Maya Deren. It’s by turns vicious, stomach-churning, elliptical, ethereal, and staggeringly beautiful. It’s a movie that will haunt me for a long time.
Joe is a combat veteran dealing with serious PTSD both from his time in the military and, as we come to learn from stylized flashbacks, a troubled and violent childhood. He supports his elderly mother and makes his living working as an independent contractor rescuing girls from the underground sex trade. Joe’s intermediary between himself and his clients, a man named McCleary, has a new case for Joe. New York State Senator Albert Votto’s young daughter Nina has gone missing. Votto received an anonymous text with an address that he assumes is a brothel. “I want you to hurt them,” Votto tells Joe.
Ramsay’s film owes a sizable debt to Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver. At the same time, it also transcends it. Ramsay gives us slow-moving tracking shots of New York City streets from Joe’s car as he does his work that are reminiscent of cab driver Travis Bickle doing his own job. Scorsese shows us everything Bickle does, and while we get voiceover narration from the character, he feels at a remove from us. Ramsay gets us inside Joe’s head in a way that feels much more personal and intimate than anything we get in Taxi Driver.
In the first sequence of the movie, which shows Joe leaving the scene of his last job, Ramsay uses a bold point of view camera technique to solidify our association with Joe. Throughout the rest of the film, we repeatedly peak into Joe’s mind – sometimes in mere flashes that last just a few frames – and we see the disturbing events that have left Joe psychologically broken. In Taxi Driver, Bickle, who is also a veteran, describes himself as “God’s lonely man,” but he leaves it at that. In Ramsay’s film, we catch glimpses of the experiences that would make a man describe himself that way.
Another movie crossed my mind as I watched You Were Never Really Here. An orgy scene in director Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, was altered after his death because the studio that released it, Warner Bros., wanted to ensure the MPAA would give it an R rating, instead of a dreaded NC-17. Were Kubrick still alive, he would no doubt have an ironic chuckle at how much more explicit the movies have become in the 20 years since Eyes Wide Shut’s release, in part due to his own boundary pushing. Ramsay conjures images in our minds that are infinitely more depraved than anything in Eyes Wide Shut, and she does it without a single frame of nudity. She’s able to do so through context, and because of the sickening effectiveness of her source material – the novel by Jonathan Ames which she adapted for the screen. Ramsay’s masterful use of imagery makes me thank the movie gods that she chose restraint when dealing with the human trafficking aspect of the story.
In fact, Lynne Ramsay proves herself a virtuoso of both restraint and provocation with You Were Never Really Here. She sets an expectation of violence early with several scenes that only hint at it. Violence pulses just below the surface of the film when we see things like Joe’s mother’s broken and swollen hand in a cast. In another scene, Joe is waiting at a train stop. Just behind him is a woman whose story we will never know. She has a noticeable black eye, and she stares at Joe as he waits for the train. Later, as Joe sits in McCleary’s office to discuss his next assignment, McCleary dabs at a nosebleed with a tissue. There is also disturbing power in Ramsay’s choice of an extreme slow zoom-in on a shelf of ball-peen hammers – Joe’s weapon of choice – as he stocks up for the new job.
Ramsay is also (mostly) merciful when documenting the violence that Joe doles out while performing his work. She builds a sense of dread in the moments just before his assault on the brothel. Then, she subverts our expectations by showing us his movements and actions using jump-cut footage of the security cameras in the building. All of this happens to the soundtrack of the song Angel Baby by Rosie & The Originals, which is playing in the brothel. Later, as Joe uncovers a conspiracy at the heart of this underground sex-slavery ring, Ramsay shows us only the aftermath of Joe’s handiwork. We track Joe’s path of righteous destruction through a secluded estate as the camera pauses to show us a series of bloodied bodies sprawled on the ground.
Ramsay’s collaborators on You Were Never Really Here are instrumental in brining her vision to fruition. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood – who provided the score for Ramsay’s 2011 film, We Need to Talk About Kevin – layers the film with a discordant, beautiful score. His music here is the thematic opposite of the lush orchestrations he delivered for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread last year, but it’s every bit as rich and hypnotic. Greenwood’s growing body of work in film scores is exciting. His pinnacle is still the soundtrack he turned in for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, but the music for You Were Never Really Here is a close second.
Joaquin Phoenix’s tortured performance dovetails perfectly with Ramsay’s art-house aesthetic. Phoenix is an actor known for committing to every role, and his portrayal of Joe is no different. He mumbles a lot of his dialog, which gives a hint of how broken his character is. At one point, Joe attempts suicide by placing rocks in his jacket pocket and walking into a lake. Ramsay captures Joe’s fractured psyche – and Phoenix’s haunting interpretation of it – in this moment when she cuts to a phantasmagoria of flashbacks. The sequence culminates in an unimaginable and unexpected shot of beauty. Surrounded on either side by pitch black, sunlight from above the lake pierces the water and suspends the submerged Joe in a state of grace.
An infamous moment in Taxi Driver shows Travis Bickle forming the shape of a gun with his hand, putting his finger to his temple, and miming pulling the trigger. We get a similar moment with Joe, only we see his daydream in graphic detail. Ramsay is a master at putting us into the damaged psyche of a broken man.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- You Were Never Really Here is vital, visceral filmmaking. It's not an easy sit by any means, but if you have the stomach for it, this movie will do something to you. Lynne Ramsay is an incredible talent.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I can't say enough about the exciting experimental feel of this movie. In one scene, a group of teenage girls comes up to Joe on the street and they ask him to take their picture. While they are posing, Joe has a psychological crisis, and Ramsay cuts to Joe's memories, juxtaposing them with the girls.
- There are several movie references throughout You Were Never Really Here. Joe comes home to find his mom watching Psycho. That's a fairly obvious reference to Joe's own mental state. One other scene shows characters sitting in a hotel room while The Shawshank Redemption plays on a TV off-screen. I knew what movie it was instantly. I credit seeing Shawshank as the seminal event that started my obsession with movies. The scene that is playing is between the characters Red and Andy, and it's the one where they talk about escaping to a beach in Mexico after they get out of prison. It's a perfect way to evoke the feeling of almost every character in You Were Never Really Here. Everyone wants to escape their terrible circumstances.
- There is a scene of Joe having to pull one of his own teeth out. If you have a thing about teeth, be warned. It's brutal.
- One scene contains a prominent painting of a nude woman in a bed, with a beckoning posture and expression on her face. The fact that it hangs in the house of a character who is involved in running the sex-slavery ring is a statement from Ramsay about how society in general, and art in particular, caters to the male perspective. That's something that she, as a female director, is gloriously subverting.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- One cell phone started ringing during the movie. Thankfully the person shut it off after only a ring or two, but it broke the spell I was under for a few seconds.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Things have gotten a little heavy around here. I think I need a light romantic comedy (but maybe with a little drama, too), so I'll be looking at the coming-of-age movie Love, Simon, which is based on the hit YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli.